He’s not the Messiah. He’s just a very naughty boy. At least some of the time. But John Safran defends that there is a point to his documentary style, even if it sometimes gets overshadowed by controversy.
In his new series John Safran’s Race Relations he is certainly guilty of being ‘ultra-personal’ as he puts it.
Exploring cross-cultural relationships, he reflects on his Jewish background, ex-girlfriends and extends theories with interviews and experiments, attracting national headlines. Being nailed to a crucifix in the Philippines? Sniffing underwear? Masturbating for a sperm bank to a photo of Barack Obama? Wearing ‘blackface’ in Chicago? Guilty as charged.
“There are things that don’t start out as controversial but they always end up as controversial.,” he told TV Tonight.
“I start off just wanting to tell a story, or talk about something interesting. And there’s a bit of a raw nerve issue, so it’s going to be creatively interesting. But I never really go out to offend. I kind of go out to make something interesting or make people laugh, but then by the time I get to the end of it somehow I’ve been nailed to a crucifix.”
Safran says the intent of the first episode, in which he uses female panties in an experiment and donates to a sperm bank, was to launch the series with comedy before getting to deeper issues.
“I know this sound so naive, but Episode One is more playful than the others and we thought we would have a soft entry point so that we’re not starting off with esoteric bullshit about ‘Why is John Jewish and what does that mean?’ We start off with something really simple like ‘Can you be attracted to people who don’t look like you?’ and stuff like that,” he says.
“But it seems like the actual immersions of the pants-stealing and the sperm bank is, for some people, just so shocking that it’s become an irrelevant distraction.
“For example with Episode Two if somebody’s having a debate about whether I should have worn blackface, it seems like a relevant controversy. A controversy that ties in with what I’m trying to achieve in the show. But just some controversy about ‘Oi, is John just trying to do Shock TV?’ is a bit irrelevant to me.”
With the risk of his comedy being taken out of context he is also concerned about being grouped with other media offences.
“You could interpret underpants and sperm bank donations as being just shock value, it’s kind of like getting thrown into the same basket as Kyle Sandilands or Hey Hey it’s Saturday, which is not what I’m trying to do. I’d much rather be ‘The Smart Guy who does Shock TV.’
Safran is no stranger to controversy – rifling through Ray Martin’s garbage, streaking naked through Jerusalem wearing only a St Kilda scarf and beanie, trying to coerce Shane Warne into breaking a ‘no smoking’ rule, and being ‘exorcised’ of demons. Surely he isn’t so surprised that his latest antics are the stuff of newspapers and talkback radio?
“When we were writing Episode One we thought the controversy was going to be ‘How can you go on TV and talk about being attracted to Eurasians?’ he said. “I thought it would be around issues and stuff. But it hasn’t been about the issues, it’s just been about ‘Should you be whacking off on television?'”
Of that issue he is boldly candid.
“With the sperm bank I said to my co-writer ‘Isn’t this a bit off or something?’ and she was like, ‘No, no, don’t you get it, this is like good humour for Australians, they like stuff like you smelling underpants and whacking off.’ So we thought it wasn’t going to be taken in a mega-controversial way,” he admits.
“But maybe I’ve just misjudged it.”
Beyond the headlines the series will seek to raise deeper issues about interracial and interfaith love. In Chicago, wearing ‘blackface’ make-up applied by the make-up artists from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, he attempts to experience life from another point of view. Amid the sheer audacity of the experiment, he says there were moments of revelation.
“One girl at speed-dating told me my whole premise was flawed because I’m making out that if I can prove that we’re different that’s some reason not to date. And she said, ‘Maybe you’ll prove that people are different. Maybe you’ll find that a black person will never understand what it’s like to be white, and all the other variations, but maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s fine.’
“So I learned there are other ways to look at it besides the way I’m looking at it,” he says.
As to the believability of that experiment Safran says his Director noticed while editing that he looked more realistic in real life than the images that will wind up on screen.
Of his now-famous crucifixion in the Philippines he says: “It hurt a bit but after the nails came out the pain seemed to dissipate fairly quickly.”
That’s some suffering for your art.
Over the eight week series, he also travels to Israel, Palestine, Togo, Japan, Thailand, the UK, the Netherlands and the United States, talks to his dead mother, becomes a ladyboy and an Elephant Man. It’s positively rife for more controversy.
“There’s one thing in particular I’m rueing,” he says. “I just reckon this is going to be eight weeks of meltdown. I can’t tell you how screwed up this show gets. As the episodes go on it gets more and more personal. So on top of everything else it’s going to be about ‘Why the hell is that guy talking about that on TV?’
“But for this particular story, making it personal just seemed to fit so well. The show is about cross-cultural love, and I grew up in a Jewish community, so it seemed hyper-relevant to talk about my experiences. As the series goes on it gets cringe-worthingly, unbearably personal.”
With TV comedy getting a lashing for going too far in 2009, Safran says a comedian’s ‘smartness’ has to be watertight.
“I’ve noticed even in interviews people are really kind of harsh, in both a good way and a bad way, asking ‘What did you mean with this? What did you mean with that?’ So you better make sure you believe in what you’ve done or you’re going to be in trouble,” he says.
“Hopefully by the end of the series it will be controversial because of the issues I bring up and not about ‘Is John trying to do Shock TV?’
“But I guess when you get nailed to a crucifix, you’re kind asking for it aren’t you?”
John Safran’s Race Relations premieres 9:30pm Wednesday on ABC1.